Twilight Fans are OK with Me

Sorry, not actually reviewing this!

Should people hate Twilight? Is the book poorly written? Are people who enjoy it stupid? Or do they just not know any better? To all of the above, the answer, of course, is no. Why not? Because everything is subjective, that’s why.

An aspiring author and friend of mine recently asked me for some advice on his book. He wanted to know if it was any good. I told him that was impossible to answer, because when it comes to fiction, “good” is entirely subjective. All I can do is tell him what I think of it and offer my suggestions. What matters to publishers, on the other hand, is whether a work will sell. Is there a market for this book? is the most common refrain. Publishers are not in the business of judging literary merit, and even critics who attempt to do so can never hope to prove their critiques. Yesterday’s worthless Van Goghs become tomorrow’s million-dollar still lifes; the obscure Moby Dick in somebody’s hard drive may become standard reading for all English majors. Despite exhaustive efforts, no critic has ever produced a fool proof formula for success. If that were even possible, with the billions of dollars spent yearly by publishers, film studios, and gaming companies, a guideline to perfect story telling would have been discovered by now, and every work of art would be loved by all. Instead, Disney loses hundreds of millions to flops like John Carter, which, incidentally, I did not think was all that bad. With our knowledge of literature, the best anyone can do to predict success is slightly better than throwing darts at a wall of titles. My own book reviews must be taken with a grain of salt, with the caveat that these are my opinions only; and I do my best to avoid absolute statements, but for the sake of avoiding repetition, I do not start every sentence with In my humble opinion . . . If there is anything I’ve learned in my thirty years of writing, it’s that there are no absolutes in story telling. To this day, I am continually surprised by the liberties authors take with the medium. This is why the growing popularity of armchair critics unnerves me. Everyone is entitled to hating the Star Wars Prequels, or the ending to Mass Effect 3 or the Twilight books, but nobody should be stating their opinions as fact, or questioning the intelligence of those who disagree.

I have always believed the difference between fact and opinion to be self-evident. Having to write this post is like defending the law of gravity. And yet, it seems not a day goes by that I don’t see comments like, “The Star Wars prequels sucked and you’re a Lucas fanboy!” or “Still a better romance than Twilight!” What do these people hope to accomplish by their ridicule? Do they think they’re changing minds? Has anyone who once loved a book or a movie or a game, after having been insulted, “seen the light?” When I review a book, it’s to enlighten people who are sitting on the fence about reading it. Unfortunately, there exists a need in people to justify an opinion by belittling others, or by invalidating an opposing viewpoint. The people making the most noise do not represent the majority, however. Star Wars is the best example of this disparity. I have met numerous people who love all six movies, but who could care less to defend their positions. Most fans are confident enough that they do not need a justification. But hate memes persist, spreading like viruses, by those who fear falling out of the in-crowd.

For Christmas this year, I picked up the deluxe Blu-Ray box set of The Sound of Music. You can probably guess this wasn’t for my 14 year old nephew. According to my father, now 83, The Sound of Music is the best movie ever made. This begs the question, why isn’t it Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? Another friend, now twenty and studying for a degree in philosophy, told me his favorite film was Star Wars Episode III, not IV, V or VI. Truth is, opinions have nothing to do with facts, and everything to do with emotion. After I started cycling, I found cycling films to be much more entertaining. Having two daughters of my own, I couldn’t help but get choked up by the thinly veiled father-daughter drama that is Wreck-It-Ralph. Opinions are not only subjective, but fickle as well. I now find G*I* Joe: The Movie hard to watch, but as a kid, I couldn’t sleep from excitement after watching it. Rarely do we love the same things equally and in the same way. Sure, we may still love Star Wars, but that love has less to do with some objective quality, and more to do with the way we felt about it when we were young. No movie can recreate the same childhood feelings. It may be sad, but it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be in our eighties, grumbling like my father that “they don’t make good movies anymore,” holding to our copies of The Force Awakens on some DNA based storage system as our grandkids roll their eyes at us.

One of the reasons I love books is that they’re timeless. By comparison, every other story telling medium is in its infancy. But maybe technology will level out, and people will be happily watching Star Wars into the next century. Gilgamesh, after 5000 years, is still an enjoyable read. But I don’t begrudge people who find it boring, who prefer Twilight to Dracula. I could explain every reason to hate it, arguing why Stephanie Meyer can’t hold a candle to David Mitchell or Cormac McCarthy, and it would not mean a thing—should not mean a thing—to Twilight fans.

Mass Effect 3: Character or Plot?

Warning: The article below contains spoilers for Mass Effect 3

I have always been interested in games with story, whether role playing through a computer or home console system or, better yet, tabletop games like D&D. Typically, I don’t expect much plot or character development from a game, but recent attempts by Bioware have proven that somewhere between all the shooting, a loose series of cut scenes can weave together a decent narrative. Whether such a medium will ever rise to the level of a novel has yet to be seen. But what really intrigued me about Bioware’s latest, Mass Effect 3, is the controversy surrounding its ending. For many gamers, it was a terrible disappointment. A poor conclusion to a story leaves the reader/viewer/player with too many unanswered questions (this year’s Prometheus comes to mind) or doesn’t offer proper closure (Hunger Games: Mockingjay). Other bad endings include the dreaded deus-ex machina, from the Ancient Greek play, where an actor dressed like a god was elevated onto the stage to resolve the conflict. In a deus-ex machina, the events leading to the conclusion feel inconsequential and the audience feels cheated. Notice how I did not mention unhappy endings, which are not classified as bad, otherwise Shakespeare would be the worst writer in history. Crowd pleasing is an easy sell. People generally want to feel happy. It takes a true master of story telling to make a person feel satisfied with a negative emotion. This is called a tragedy. Of course, many tragedies misfire, which is usually the case when the ending doesn’t satisfy the above criteria, when it doesn’t answer its own questions or give meaning or closure to the story.

The writers of Mass Effect 3 achieved a perfect, albeit bittersweet finale, and I am completely baffled by the public reaction to it, which forced Bioware to do something unprecedented: to create a downloadable, extended ending, which, not surprisingly, did little to appease the outrage. I have not been this baffled since the hatred for the Star Wars Prequels. I immediately grabbed my iPad to better understand the reaction. Armchair critics have been typing their hearts out with dissatisfaction. As one blogger stated, the game was a failure because people don’t care about philosophical questions or mythology, in reference to the Reapers, an alien race who believes it necessary to exterminate higher intelligence in the galaxy. Excuse me? Mythology is the very best of story-telling tradition, and as for philosophy, I’ll simply quote from Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” If a story, any story, can make us think about life, about the BIG picture, that is always a plus in my book (figuratively and literally). But, as usual, the critics state their opinions as facts. These are the same people who give advice to George Lucas on how to make a Star Wars film. Now I have no problem disliking pop culture, such as the new James Bond film Skyfall, which, despite 92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I felt was boring and pointless. Opinions are like that, varied and inarguable. What bothers me, however, is a growing trend that may shed light onto the Mass Effect 3 haters and the Skyfall lovers

For the past ten to twenty years, fiction has been moving away from plot and more toward character. Now, I focus a great deal on my protagonists in my own work, but the balance has shifted too far; character trumps plot to the point where plot becomes irrelevant. George Lucas disappointed millions of fans by focusing his Prequel Trilogy on political and philosophical questions rather than on character (in both acting and dialogue). The Dark Knight Rises, which was received with near universal acclaim, plays like a psychological study of Bruce Wayne, while disregarding the logic of the plot. This year’s Avengers, despite one awesome SFX sequence after another, puts more emphasis on the heroes’ relationships to each other than the events on screen. For the first time in Bond history, Skyfall delves into James’ childhood and the Oedipal drama between him and M. On the book front, Life of Pi focuses exclusively on the thoughts and feelings of one character, which is more widely accepted than Cloud Atlas, a story of grand philosophical concepts. All that brings us back to the ending of Mass Effect 3, criticized for not adequately giving closure to each of its characters . . . we don’t know whether they lived, died, or went on to happy lives. To this I say, who cares?

Has the isolation and dehumanizing effects of our Facebook generation made us obsessed with ourselves and our feelings? Never mind why the aliens are attacking, what matters is how we feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the best fiction is character-driven, from Shindler’s List to 127 Hours to Catcher in the Rye, but for me, a galaxy-wide war involving synthetic aliens intent on making all extra-solar civilizations extinct does not speak of character study. There are far more interesting and significant issues to be mined from such a story, and I could care less what my blue-skinned girlfriend will be doing after the games’ credits roll.

Character matters, but so does plot; the two are conjoined and complement one another. If one fails, the story fails. Mass Effect 3 does not disappoint in this regard. Shepard, the hero of the Mass Effect series, sacrifices his life for the big picture. But perhaps what really bothers the critics is the fact that, however the game ends, the hero dies. For them, no matter how noble the death, Mass Effect 3 ends on a tragic note. These same people forget how short and precarious life is, how we’ll all end up in the same place some day. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Solon, argued that how a man dies is far more important than if or when. I really cannot imagine a better way to end my life than by saving trillions of lives. It is the very definition of the heroic journey, past down from Beowulf, and if that doesn’t fit the feel-good package the Internet community thinks it wants, well that is art. Art gives us what it wants, not what we ask for. Which is precisely why, as art must do, it stirs up so many passions.


Nick’s Picks: The Five Greatest Novels of All Time

1. The Once and Future King by T.H. White

This is the very best telling of one of the very best myths. It’s the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Guinevere, with everything you might want out of fantasy. But more importantly, T.H. White pulls at the heart strings while teaching you lessons about life, love, and loyalty.

2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Ambitious, brilliantly realized, grand in scope and imagination, Cloud Atlas deals with the big questions only the very best authors have the audacity to take on. Mitchell works in time scales of hundreds of years, to reveal not just the what of a dystopian future but more importantly the how. Through reincarnation, the reader is taken on a journey through six lives and a sextet of novellas, each of which explores themes of power and exploitation. Ultimately, Mitchell extrapolates where unchecked power and rampant consumerism will inevitably lead the human race, and it isn’t a pretty picture.

3. Dune by Frank Herbert

In 1965, long before Star Wars or Star Trek defined the science fiction epic, there was the equally splendorous Dune. Unlike the giants of the genre, Asimov and Clarke, Herbert paved the road for science fiction and fantasy in creating not merely a glimpse of a distant future but a fully realized world set upon tens of thousands of years. The result feels prophetic but exotically remote—as if Nostradamus looked so far forward that any lingering trace of society as we know it becomes nearly unrecognizable.

4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

As you follow the characters in Steinbeck’s book, you find yourself unwillingly part of their family, raging as they rage, weeping as they weep, despairing as they despair. And yet, despite the enormity of their suffering, The Grapes of Wrath never discourages the reader. Every page is suffused with hope for a better future. Steinbeck manages this feat by creating characters easy to feel compassion for. They are proud, as familiar as friends, and their struggle is as noble as any quest in any adventure.

5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

That scientific discoveries can have terrible, unintended consequences has been popularized by countless movies, TV shows, and novels, but in 1818, long before the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima, Frankenstein raised the issue of tinkering with nature. Shelley’s novel is so much more than a cautionary tale, however; it can be read in multiple levels, as a drama, a love story, an adventure, a morality play, and a social commentary. Though in some ways conventional in today’s world, Frankenstein remains brilliant for its gripping narrative and heartfelt characters and will continue to stand the test of time well into the future.

Cloud Atlas

No review of Cloud Atlas can do it justice. I should just type the title in bold followed by four stars. Hell, I’d like to change my rating system to give it five. Yes, it’s that good, a work of literary genius that transcends all genres. Unfortunately, the cover sure as hell doesn’t do it justice. I get the impression the artist didn’t have a clue what to do, so he just Googled a bunch of cloud imagery and Photoshopped them together. The back flap simply states, Mitchell is, clearly, a genius, and while I typically hate this kind of gushing more-often-than-not false praise, I can’t help but echo the sentiment. Few writers have intimidated me like this guy has. Cloud Atlas is on a whole other level, brilliantly written and conceived, deeply textured, and so meaningful you could base a whole religion around it. And yet, I am neither bitter nor jealous, simply overjoyed to have found something so profound to read. In other words, this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. While Cloud Atlas isn’t for everybody (it’s challenging), it exists, which proves there is still a market for brilliant writing, and for that I am thankful.

There may not be enough words in the English language to describe Cloud Atlas, but I’ll give it my best shot. The first thing you’ll notice when picking it up is that it’s a hard read. I literally strained my brain with the first five pages, trying my best to recall the French and Russian classics I studied in my college days. My mind turned to the difficulty rating system my daughter uses to pick books at Barnes & Nobles. I think adult books should have those too, but anyone over twenty will likely have too much pride to check out anything with a high school reading level. The novel is broken down into a series of smaller, interconnected novellas, each dealing with different time periods, and Mitchell, incredibly enough, changes writing styles to suit the period. The nautical journal that opens the book reads as if it were written by someone from the 18th century, with two-hundred year old British colloquialisms, outdated turns-of-phrases, outdated spellings, and words you definitely won’t find in any recent publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. Moving forward into the future, Mitchell delves into 19th century classical music, where some of the dialogue is in French (I kid you not); careful readers must infer meaning based on context. As if that isn’t bad (or is that brilliant?) enough, Mitchell invents his own dialect for a far distant future, imagining how the language will change in a world far removed from our own. At first, this seems pretentious and show-offy, but as the novel progresses, you come to understand how Mitchell incorporates language and grammar to set the tone and setting for each story. For instance, in a future where corporations have replaced government, brand names take the place of common words, so kodak comes to mean photograph, and sony computer, and ford automobile. While the writing may seem off-putting, I found the challenge enjoyable. It is truly remarkable how your brain decodes difficult writing after a while, so that by the end of each story, I had no problem understanding what was on the page. Without a doubt, the style adds a richness and a level of realism to the world that is Cloud Atlas.   

No amount of literary wizardry, however, can make up for a lackluster story. Fortunately, Cloud Atlas delivers a tale that is no less remarkable, or should I say, a sextet of tales as remarkable as the last. You could consider it an anthology, except in the way each story alludes and complements the other. What’s more, Mitchell explores genres the way he does styles. To a writer like myself, this is especially impressive, like a musician who can pick up a guitar or a violin and perform just as masterfully on either one. In Cloud Atlas, you will find historical drama, tragic romance, murder mystery, heady dystopian Sci-Fi, and post-apocalyptic fantasy, and somehow, Mitchell manages to tie all the threads together. Each story deals with a different character and time period, yet their soul is one and the same, passed from one life to the next. Sometimes the character is male, at others female. Often, the connections between them seems tenuous and inconsequential, but as the novel unfolds, you can see how each story plays a part in Mitchell’s grand theme of conflict, between the powerful and the weak, the haves and the have-nots. Throughout time, the powerful define history and morality, to favor their own causes, to maintain the divide between themselves and those whom they must oppress to maintain power. This is nothing new in fiction, and is, in fact, one of the central aspects of dytopian literature. Unlike, say, the Hunger Games or even A Brave New World, what sets Cloud Atlas apart and, dare I say, above the classics, is how Mitchell deals with time scales of hundreds of years, from the early 18th century to the distant 22nd, to reveal not just the what of a dystopian future but more importantly the how, the root of humanity’s Fall sowed from the beginnings of history. Through reincarnation, Mitchell takes the reader on a journey through the lives of his protagonists, to show the gradual, almost imperceptible growth of industrialized power, from early British missionaries’ exploitation of the aboriginals of the South Pacific to the nuclear energy companies of the 1970’s. Moving further into a future beyond our own time, Mitchell extrapolates where unchecked power and rampant consumerism will inevitably lead the human race, and it isn’t a pretty picture. But Cloud Atlas is even grander in scope, exploring one of the big philosophical questions, a concept shared by both Buddhists and Nietzsche known as eternal-return, the idea that time itself is cyclical, that everything that has ever happened happened before, and will happen again. To illustrate the point, Cloud Atlas leaves each novella without a conclusion, leading to the middle and most climactic piece, then returning, symbolically, to each story, so the book ends essentially where it began. Does this mean society is doomed to repeat a never ending cycle of disaster? That a dystopian future is inevitable? That the corrupting influences of power are intrinsic to humanity? As in every masterpiece, Cloud Atlas raises more questions than it can ever hope to answer.     

Cloud Atlas is ambitious, brilliantly realized, grand in scope and in imagination, and most of all, it deals with the big questions only the very best authors have the audacity to take on. This is a book I wish I had written. It is one of those things I am overjoyed to have discovered, despite that I knew nothing of it before the trailer for the film with Tom Hanks. Buried among the glut of tired and formulaic fiction, it is always nice to find a gem. As a writer, I am often dismayed by the limited scope of modern writing, due largely in part to the limited imagination of agents and publishers, who like their plots reduced to single-sentence explanations and who prefer narrative hooks in the first five pages. The first five pages of Cloud Atlas does nothing to elucidate the brilliance that follows, but to even attempt to condense a work of such scope into a single gimmicky hook would be to do the novel a disservice. Is it any wonder it was first published in Britain? Cloud Atlas makes me feel good about writing and wanting to be a writer. It reminds me what fiction can be and sometimes should be. It’s a book I could read a second time (a rare thing for me). For these reasons and more, I’m putting Cloud Atlas in my no. #2 spot (as of this writing) beneath T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, for my favorite novel.